Easing in to Winter Hiking at Haw River State Park

By: Katie Hall, Public Information Officer, N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation

Haw River GBH Trail 2

I chose Haw River State Park to launch a season of winter hikes. Though I enjoy cold weather and especially snow, I haven’t done much winter hiking in the past. This year, my first winter with NC State Parks, I am determined to make the most of the quiet trails as I continue to explore our parks. I’m sure that some of my upcoming winter hikes will be just lovely while others will be brutal and test my resolve. I’ll need new gear, a strong dose of willpower, and a lot of hot chocolate.

So far, I’ve got two pieces of gear to recommend (other than the obvious hat, gloves, scarf): a smartphone-friendly pair of gloves and good base layer. I’ve gotten two different thicknesses of base layers to meet my needs depending on what pants I hike in that day and how cold and windy the hike could be. Always check the weather in your hike area regularly as you’re planning and be ready to adjust your plans to make the best of your time.

One of the best things about Haw River State Park is its accessibility to the massive population of the Triangle, Charlotte, and Triad areas. It’s not so close to urban centers that it often gets overcrowded, but it is accessible, wonderfully wild, and one-of-a-kind.

Haw River Map

Haw River State Park was authorized by the N.C. General Assembly in 2003, solidifying the protection of the Haw River headwaters– an area in Guilford and Rockingham counties that was among 12 sites in North Carolina identified as a potential state park in the New Parks for a New Century initiative. The park has grown to 1,425 acres over the past 15 years with the help of partners and private donors. As part of interim development, it offers the traditional amenities of hiking and picnicking at our Iron Ore Belt Access day-use area. Additional facilities are planned, with this location noted as a key destination on the state’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

Iron Ore Belt Access
Haw River State Park Iron Ore Belt Access

Great Blue Heron Loop is accessed at the new Iron Ore Belt entrance and ushers you on for 3.2 miles through hardwood forests and Haw River wetlands. It rolls through changes in elevation along a dry path with few rocks and roots, allowing for a peaceful, meditative hike. The loop is the perfect length for a solid hike even if you have an otherwise busy day.

Great Blue Heron Loop Trail

Part of the joy of winter hikes is the quiet of the trail this time of year. It’s a time to discover the landscape in a different state. While much of the ecosystem lays dormant, new dynamics are at play: different fauna have moved down from the north for warmer weather or are stopping over on their way further south; trees offer less shelter for woodland critters that typically live in their branches; and the dormancy of insects affects the availability of food for the usual warm season food chain. Due to these changes, winter hikes bring you to the threshold of a different place—even in your favorite, most familiar park—and allow you to experience it anew.

I’ve always loved cedar trees. To be honest and a bit morbid, I also love things made OUT of cedar trees, but I’ll focus on the trees here. Something about their shape and vibrant color seems almost surreal in a winter landscape. One of my favorite things about Haw River State Park was seeing so many beautiful cedars.

Check out this beefcake of a Cedar!
Make sure you make your way out to Haw River State Park this winter to make the most of this beautiful ecosystem. Opportunities for birding, hiking, and photography abound on the quiet trails this season.
Li’l baby cedars along the Great Blue Heron Loop Trail.


Katie Hall is the new-ish Public Information Officer for North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation. A life-long North Carolinian, Katie is on a mission to explore all the State Parks she has missed or hasn’t seen in a decade or more. Her background is in environmental science, management and policy, communications and outreach.

Personal park count (as of 12/20/17): 30

Still on tap: Carvers Creek, Crowders Mountain, Goose Creek, Lake Norman, Mayo River, Merchants Millpond, Mount Mitchell, New River, Pettigrew, South Mountains, Weymouth Woods.  


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